TEXAS MONTHLY’s first Ten Best & Worst Legislators list appeared in the July 1973 issue, not long after the magazine’s February launch. The inaugural Best Barbecue list had run in April (“The World’s Best Barbecue is in Taylor, Texas. Or is it Lockhart?”), and in the wake of its success, members of the magazine’s founding team—staff writers Richard West and Griffin Smith Jr., and Editor William Broyles—were inspired to apply their list-making talents to the Capitol, with “input and kibbutzing” from our own Paul Burka, who at the time was working from the inside.
To mark the list’s 20th anniversary, we called up Broyles, who’s gone on to write such familiar Hollywood titles as Apollo 13 and Cast Away, and asked for his memories from the making of that first list 38 years ago.
Where did the idea first come from?
So far as I can remember, it was mainly Griffin’s idea. We were sitting around talking about how to apply the basic standards of magazines—best and worst lists, for example—to more important topics. And we were wondering, how do we cover politics in a monthly magazine? How do we get our readers involved in how the legislature really works, not the box score, campaign biographies, spin doctor clichés, but how do the legislators really view themselves. We wanted something that was a kind of short-hand, fun to read, almost like a dispatch from a war zone.
How did you determine the criteria?
The standard from the beginning was that the best legislators had to be the ones that other legislators thought were the best: it was to be a ranking from the inside, not the outside. And that meant we immediately ruled out ideology. A legislature could agree with us 100 per cent and be one of the worst, and conversely, one who we disagreed with on everything could be one of the best. The standard was not ideology, but character: who did the other legislators trust? Who was the stand up guy or woman? Who did you go to to get something done? Who when they made you a promise, would keep it. And who contributed the most to getting things done, to making the institution work, who had the most respect for the political process and for his or her fellow legislators.
How did you put the list together?
Since we were really making all this up from nothing, the other principle was that we would be there from first gavel to last, so that we would know first hand, and so that we would earn the legislators’ trust and become almost part of the furniture. And that was where the concept of furniture came from, a category neither best nor worst, but legislators who might as well have stayed at home, or been a desk or a chair for all the difference they made. When it came down to it, it was fun, and these legislators by and large made really good company. They had a novelist’s eye for character, the best of the them did, and some of the very best insights, as well as some of the best turns of phrase, came from them. The funny thing is, the kind of writing we were doing in this, it was the same sort of thing Griffin and Paul had done on the Rice Thresher [the Rice U. student newspaper] back when I was in awe of them in the ‘60s, and they’d argue about Ten Best the same way they’d argue about articles in the Thresher.
What was the reaction when the list came out?
We were surprised we weren’t tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail by the Ten Worst. Suspecting that might happen, that’s why we did Ten Best too! Politicians being what they are, every single one of the Ten Best fully expected to be on the Best list, but the problem was, every single one of the Worst expected to be on the Best list too.
How do you think this list has impacted the legislature?
That first year, picking the worst was tough: there were so many candidates. In large part, I like to think, because no one had ever written about them in this way before. They could get away with terrible behavior, with betraying and backstabbing and just never even showing up, with being on the take to every lobby in town, and no one would ever call them on it. So in some ways, Ten Best/Worst may have made the lege less entertaining. But it’s a whole different world now: ideology is in the saddle, and the standards of good governance and devotion to the higher goals of doing what’s best for Texas, of taking good ideas no matter where they come from, those days seem to be gone. I sure hope they come back. I think the most important thing that came out of that first edition is that it hooked Paul. He was helping from the inside, and shortly afterwards, we finally got him to come on board, and Texas politics and journalism was never the same again. He just elevated everything to a whole new level.